The government’s decision to take ownership stakes in America’s largest banks is a historic step that shifts power in the economy toward Washington and away from Wall Street.
The plan to prop up banks large and small — along with recent bailouts as well as guarantees to support business loans, money markets and bank lending — represents the most sweeping government moves into the nation’s financial markets since the Great Depression, and perhaps ever, according to economists and finance experts.
The high-stakes program is intended to halt the worst financial crisis since the 1930s. If successful, it could long be studied by historians as a textbook case of the emergency role that government can play to rescue a teetering economy.
“It is profound, and it is something of a shift back to the state,” said Adam S. Posen, an economist at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “But is this a recasting of capitalism? I think what we’ll see is that the government acts as a silent partner and gets out as soon as it can.”
Indeed, they say, many questions remain. Is the government picking winners in a plan initially that seems tilted toward the nation’s largest banks? What strings are attached to the investment in matters like executive pay? Will the move presage a more forceful government hand to control financial markets or will it be a brief stint as capitalism’s protector?
The package does call for the government investments to be in three-year securities that the banks can repay at any time, when markets settle and conditions improve. “This is clearly a crisis measure in crisis times, but it’s a good thing there is a sunset provision that limits the length of the government’s investment,” said Richard Sylla, an economist and financial historian at the Stern School of Business at New York University.
The United States is acting in step with Europe, where governments often take a more interventionist stance in economies and the financial systems are held in the hands of a comparatively small number of banks.
Britain took the lead last week, declaring its intention to take equity stakes in banks to steady them. In the last two days, France, Germany, Italy and Spain have announced rescue packages for their banks that include state shareholdings.
The government’s plan is an exceptional step, but not unprecedented.